Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Hawkwind Live

T'other Friday my good self and the infamous Roadhawk the Cosmic Knight went on a jolly to see the legendary space rockers Hawkwind in concert. For those of you who don't know, Hawkwind are one of the longest running psychedelic rock bands in existence who over the years have unleashed albun after album charting the depths of both inner and outer space. Since forming in the pre-Cambrian Period, Hawkwind have set loose Lemmy on an unsuspecting world, counted legendary author Michael Moorcock as one of their number and worked with personalities diverse as Arthur Brown, Samatha Fox and Matthew 'The Wright Stuff' Wright. They have inspired countless bands and fried innumerable brain cells. And the current line up features Tim Blake, aka Moonweed, from the equally legendary Gong, on keyboards and theremin.

Now I've seen Hawkwind several times in the past (to be honest I'm not sure how many times exactly - I've killed alot of brain cells over the years), and Roadhawk always visits this plane of existence when they play, so we pretty much knew what to expect. Pyschedelic light show - check. Backdrop projecting cosmic imagery - check. Mime artists - check. Dave Brock looking pretty chipper despte being at least several aeons old - check. However this gig wasn't just business as usual as the 'Wind delivered the best set I've ever seen them do.

Opening with a blistering extended version of 'Masters of the Universe', and then blasting out a fantastic tour through their discography, Captain Brock and co were on tip top form. The current five-piece line up really allows them to play spectacular versions of most famous tunes, building full-on swirling walls of noise shot through with spiralling melodies. This performance not only underscored how epic Hawkwind are in their music, but also how marvellously anthemic so many of their compositions are. Old favourites like 'Damnation Alley' and 'Assualt and Battery' had the crowd joyfully singing along, and the final song of the two hour set "Silver Machine" really blew the roof off.

The guys are really on top form at the moment and if you've seen before, then catch them again now! And if you are new to Hawkwind but love pyschedelia and storming guitars, then I heartily urge you to grab some of their records and rush out and see them now. Ok they have been going a long long time but this is not some dinosaur band - oh no, Hawkwind are DRAGONS!

Thursday, 4 December 2008


Hypnogoria now has a Facebook group! You can find it here -

Come on over and have a gander!

At last - The House of Frankenstein

Finally it's here! Bet you all thought I'd forgotten! Well at last it's here, my little review of the 5th installment of Universal's Frankenstein saga...

Now in an episode of the marvellous Horror Etc podcast, one of the the hosts, the very genial Anthony DP Mann claimed that in his opinion Universal never made a truly bad horror film in this era. And while I wholehearted concur with this, it has to be said that House of Frankenstein is easily the weakest entry in the saga.

In the trailer for this monster rally, Universal promised audiences a whopping five monsters in one flick! Obviously raising the stakes from two to three monsters just wasn't good enough! So here we have the tale of Dr Niemann (Monster #1 - The Mad Scientist) and his quest to continue his experiments and extract revenge on those who have crossed him. Niemann, played with relish by Boris Karloff, is perhaps best described as a Frankenstein wannabe - he even emulates his hero right down to having a deformed assistant (Monster #2 - The Hunchback). And in the course of the movie, he revives not only the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf Man, but Dracula too (Monsters # 3, 4 & 5 natch).

Now that's a whole lotta monsters! Now considering the patchy pairing of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, it's no real surprise that the script has trouble fitting all these villains into one movie. But in the main, surprisingly, they do manage it! No mean feat, when you consider the concept for the film is more a good hand in a game of Top Trumps than an actual storyline.

Admittedly the Frankenstein monster doesn't get a whole lot to do until thefilm's finale and spends most of its screen time literally lying down on the job. But though the monster doesn't do alot, it is a key element in Niemann's schemes, and so in terms of the storyline, the monster's prescence is well integrated.

The main focus of the movie, though revolves around Niemann, Larry Talbot and the Hunchback Daniel. There is a nice dynamic between the 3 characters, and a neat subplot involving romantic rivalry between Daniel and Larry for the affections of a gypsy girl. Gypsy girl? I hear you cry ... Yes, with the inclusion of a hunchback, sorry make that 'The Hunchback', rather than having Daniel as a stock mad scientist assistant in the vein of Fritz or Igor, Universal decided to go more mythic and echo the classic Quasimodo and Esmeralda relationship.

Dracula's inclusion however is less well executed. The plot device of Niemann reviving the Lord of The Vampires and coercing him into serving his revenge plot is introduced well enough, but then the action wanders away from the main story. So in effect we have a Dracula vignette inserted into the middle of the film, which does rather chop up the flow of the story.

Now, how does this monster rally fare in terms of continuity? Surprisingly fairly well. Better than Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, though in fairness, this film didn't have to content with all of one characters dialogue being cut. However there is one major howler - Dracula is revived from his staked skeleton when we all know that the Count's remains were incinerated by his daughter on a misty moor. Well, all of us who saw Dracula's Daughter do at any rate - a movie that seems to have passed the script writers by. And when Dracula is revived he now looks like John Carradine, who doesn't in the slightest resemble Lugosi. Still I suppose we could claim that this is a relation of the original Dracula (as we do for Son Of Dracula)...

But continuity snarl-ups are par for the course, particularly this late in the series, and House of Frankenstein is actually far better than either of it two immediate predecessors in this regard. However where the script really falls down is in terms of sense! Frankly Niemann's revenge plan is utterly bonkers on every level. It is revealed that when he finally captures two of his enemies, he plans to insert the brain of the Wolf Man into one, and transplant the brain of the other into the monster's body. All of which will result in one undergoing the curse of lycanthropy and the other being trapped in a patchwork body.

Now aside from the basic confusion in the script, that putting Talbot's brain in another body, will simply put Larry in a new body, this plan is still round the twist. Ok, so one of your enemies will now have the power to turn into the Wolf Man and claw you into kibble faster than you can say 'Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf'. And the other will suffer the living hell of being trapped in an inhumanly strong and virtually indestructible body. Great work Niemann - a revenge that will effectively gives your victims super powers! Genius! As Zaphod Beeblebrox would say - "Ten out of ten for style, minus several million for good thinking".

Then again Niemann is the Mad Scientist in this movie, so you could argue that as a wannabe Frankenstein he has got the wrong end of the stick and taken the 'mad' bit of his job description literally. Which would explain why his plan to play muscial brains is so totally tonto...

But enough of this filling in of clincially insane plot holes! I'll start sounding as barking as Niemann himself if I'm not careful. So onto performances. Chaney is dependable as ever as poor doomed Larry Talbot and Karloff really seems to be enjoying playing the scientist rather than the monster for once. J. Carrol Naish is also excellent as Daniel, giving the character a nice sense of pathos and playing of Karloff and Chaney very well. Carradine though seems a little unsure in his portrayal of the Count, and in fairness the script isn't doing him any favours. (However in the next movie in this series, he really - obligatory bad pun alert! - gets his teeth in to the role). Glen Strange is fine as the monster in the little he has to do, but it is pleasing to see the character being played by an actor with the correct height and build once again.

Now despite the problems in the script, this is still an entertaining movie. However when the script does work, such as the scenes playing out the love triangle between Talbot, Daniel and Illonka, the movie really hits the quality mark. Harking back to 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was a very inspired touch. Indeed I can't help feeling that there's a truly great little movie in here trying to get out - and with another couple of drafts done on the screenplay it could have made it.

In general, the cast really try to make it work, and there still some very nice set pieces and cinematography despite the reduced budget. Yes, it is the weakest entry in the series but it's not a bad movie by any means. It's not a great movie either, but it is really good fun. Watch it with your tongue firmly in your cheek and you'll probably have a blast with this.

Monday, 24 November 2008


After months of pestering, my partner in crime Mr Tom Greenslade has finally managed to stay out of the pub long enough to set up his own blog. Or rather tumblelog.

And what in Cliff's name is a tumblelog? Well Tumblr is a blog site where as well as the the usual posting you can easily add links to pictures, web pages, quotes, music or video you find online. It's really fun and a great way to share all the groovy things you stumble upon while traversing the net without having to spam all your mates via email. Go on check it out, you'll like it! Honest!

Anyhow the linkage to Tom's is -

He's promising a good deal of what we call 'news of the weird' as well anything that takes his eye. Plus there'll be a fair bit of our own creative efforts that don't fit into the parameters of

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

New UK Store

There been some changes at Hypnogoria Towers. As those wonderful folks at Zazzle have opened a UK arm of their operation, we've moved our store there. The all new UK shop can be found at -

Not only does the shop look a lot nicer now, but with Zazzle you can put our designs on a variety of different garments of your choice! Plus shipping to Europe is now cheaper! And Zazzle now accepts Paypal!

Plus if you wander over to the main HYPNOGORIA site there's a new line of designs to check out!

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Dead Set - Final Report

As a follow up to my earlier review of the first two episodes, here's a quick overview on the whole thing ...

I'm happy to report that the high standards of the opening episodes were maintained and the story reached a satisfying conclusion. High marks to creator Charlie Brooker and director Yann Demange for bringing us a full strength piece of horror fiction.

And it's all the more remarkable for being a television production. TV horror all too often suffers from being toned down so not to upset viewers and advertisers, but Dead Set made no compromise to the mores of television. A good example of this is Dead Set's Patrick not only is he throughly unlikeable as a character, he's more foul mouthed and offensive than Day of the Dead's Rhodes and Steel put together, and meets a spectacularly bloody end that I was amazed the TV bosses allowed.

My only niggle with it being a TV production was that it was shown as a mini series. I did feel that some of the tension and momentum was lost bu showing it in episodes. But as I suspected the DVD presents it as a movie, and E4 promptly repeated the whole series in movie format - and really this is the way it should be viewed. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if a canny distributor picks up Dead Set for a cinema release outside the UK.

As is becoming standard in my reviews, here's the quibbles! I have a few with Dead Set but they are pretty minor. Firstly it would have been nice to see a little more of the zombie apocalypse but I'm guessing this was a bugetary issue and not seeing more of what was happening in the rest of the world played well in the context of the plot.

Secondly I did feel the use of filters was a bit over done. But this is a fairly common trend in many productions these days; it seems that directors just can't resist tweaking the colour balance these days. In horror in particular it seems derigeur to tint your cinematography either blue, green or grey. However I am begining to grow a bit weary of it all - c'mon guys there's nothing wrong with showing the colours as shot sometimes!

Finally I was disappointed there wasn't more of the Davina zombie! Apparently though they only had Miss McCall for a day's shooting, which was a bit of a shame. I'm sure had she been available for longer, Charlie would have had her leading the charge in the finale when the dead inevitabley break into the house. Still it has to be said, Davina played a great ghoul!

Dead Set is brutal, bleak and above all socially incisive - all of which I'm sure will ensure that it features high in top ten zombie lists for years to come. Admittedly it won't be knocking any of Romero's classic trilogy off their perchs but Dead Set gives Fulci, Wright, Boyle and Synder a real run for their money - and some of you may well rate it above Romero's last two zombie outings...

Friday, 31 October 2008

Tennant's Super Strength!

So it's been announced that David Tennant is leaving Doctor Who after the four specials in 2009.

When it was first announced he would taking on the role, my first reaction was "well, he's a bit young looking for the part". However I then remembered I'd had the exact same thought when Tom Baker took over the role, and we all know how well that turned out.

And indeed by the time "Tooth and Claw" (his third episode) had aired, I was in doubt the character was in very safe hands indeed. The common opinion (in my manor at least) was that although Ecclestone had played the role extremely well, Tennant had topped him - he wasn't just playing the Doctor, he WAS the Doctor!

And so I for one will be sorry to see him go. But he’ll have done 4 years, and 4 series (if we're counting next year's specials as a series), which in the Doctor Tenure League Table places him at a very respectable 4th place (do any numerologists out there want to make anything of all those 4s?).

1) Tom Baker – 7 series
2) Jon Pertwee – 5 series
3) David Tennant – 4 series
4) William Hartnell – 3 series
5) Patrick Troughton 3 series
6) Peter Davison – 3 series
7) Sylvester McCoy – 3 series
8) Colin Baker – 2 series
9) Christopher Ecclestone – 1 series
10) Paul McGann – 1 TV movie

It's been a great period for Doctor Who, and before we get all maudlin mourning Tennant's passing, remember we've got 5 specials coming. And considering they are going to be the final tales of the 10th Doctor, I'm betting they are going to be hugely epic!

Of course I’m wondering what the hell they are going to do about River Song …

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

At last we get return to the realms of Frankenstein! Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man holds a special place in my heart, as it was the very first horror movie I ever saw... Previously I'd seen a fair few sci-fi flicks and monster movies, some of which contained a good dose of fear. Like many genre fans out there I'd been terrified by the Morlocks in George Pal's The Time Machine, thrilled by the mutant in This Island Earth, and utterly dazzled by the original King Kong.

Plus Doctor Who at the time (mid 70s) had been providing a weekly dose of terror with serials featuring giant maggots, body snatching spiders, creatures from the deep and all manner of ugly and villainous aliens - and if all that wasn't enough the early Tom Baker stories featured homages to The Quatermass Experiment (The Seeds of Death), Frankenstein and Donovan's Brain (Brain of Morbius), mummy movies (Pyramids of Mars), and The Phantom of the Opera (Talons of Weng Chiang). And the latter threw in the most sinister murderous ventriloquist's dummy of all time Mr Sin.

All great stuff for the budding horror fan. But I'd not yet seen a proper horror film. At that time in the UK, horror films - even the ancient Universals were only ever shown late at night and so apart from the stuf fmentioned above, the closest I'd got to seeing a pure horror movie was a couple of clips on a TV show about movie history and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (which was deemed suitable for an earlier viewing slot).

However in 1977 that was about to change at a rainy Cub Scout camp. In the usual range of activities, it was announced there was to be a film showing. Now we trooped into the hall expecting something from the Children's Film Foundation stable, as was usually the case in these situations. So imagine my surprise and delight when the lights dimmed and the title Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man hit the screen. Needless to say the movie went down a storm with us Cubs. Partly as this showing had the alluring whiff of contraband about it (remember this was the kind of thing that normally screened way past bedtime and years before the advent of video), but mainly because this movie is just so much fun. And for the rest of the weekend, several hundred small boys were either snarling around trees or lurching about with arms outstretched... I don't know who decided on that choice of movie, but they have my everlasting thanks!

So how does this film hold up now? Well it does exactly what it says on the tin. It's still an awful lot of fun and is hands down my favourite of the last four movies in the series. Though it has it's problems. For a start the first half which focuses on Larry Talbot is far superior to the second - it's well constructed and intriguing but when we discover the Frankenstein monster the script lapses slightly.

Watching the series in order, the first question is how on earth did the Monster end up in an ice cave beneath Castle Frankenstein when at the close of Ghost of Frankenstein he was burning up in miles away in Ludwig's manor? Considering the smooth continuity from The Wolf Man this does jar. Admittedly the studio bosses did monkey about with the film. As you may remember the previous film ended with Igor's brain being transplanted into the Monster's body and discovering he was going blind. Hence for this movie Lugosi logically got the role of the Monster, and the script originally had the monster speaking. However test audiences laughed too much at Lugosi's speechs and so Universal ordered the monster's dialogue to be snipped. So one wonders whether there was a Lugosi speech which told how the Monster came to be frozen. Considering the care Curt Siodmak pays to other aspects of the continuity, I find it hard to imagine he would omit bridging the gap in the story from the previous Frankenstein outing, especially as it was written to be Igor in the Monster's body.

No doubtedly these cuts also damage the movie's plot in other ways. For example, we have Lugosi shambling about with arms outstretched but there is no reference made to the monster being blind. But one also wonders what else was lost; I can't imagine Igor not having another evil scheme up his sleeve. One can only hope that someday the lost footage turns up, as I imagine it will produce a second half that lives up to the first.

However despite the above problems, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is still far superior to its predecessor or its two sequels. Creighton Chaney's impassioned performance really holds the film together and the cinematography has a truly epic gothic vision. It's packed with wonderful set pieces - the atmospheric opening with grave robbers breaking into the Talbot mausoleum, the lavish mittel-European village revels, the climatic final battle of the monsters - to name but three. It may not scale the heights set by the first three Frankenstein movies, or The Wolf Man for that matter, but it does satisfy, delivering creepy thrills and spills and manages to contruct a tale which integrates the Wolf Man and the Monster.

And finally, it must be noted that Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is an increasingly important film in cinema history as it is the granddaddy of the the crossover film. Without it we would have no King Kong Vs Godzilla, no Freddy Vs Jason, and no Aliens Vs Predator movies... (though in the latter case that some of you out there may well be thinking that's a blessing). However with Marvel finally getting their characters to crossover on the big screen, we can be sure that movie icons will be going head to head a whole lot more in the future...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Dead Set

I think this is a first - a zombie TV series, complete with all the biting and gut munching we've come to expect of the risen dead post-George Romero. Considering the original Night Of the Living Dead, which set the template for a zombie apocalypse, came out way back in 1968, and that small groups surviving in inhospitable and unlikely places has always been a popular hook for TV series, it's amazing that a zombie serial hasn't been done before.

Although that said, whether Dead Set counts as a TV series is something we'll have to look at closer later...

So what is Dead Set? Basically it's a five part series currently being shown on UK channel E4 all this week. And you can expect a repeat on the parent channel, Channel 4 pretty sharpish, judging from the high ratings of the first two episodes. Oh and the DVD is out next Monday (November 3rd).

The premise is fairly straight forward - the dead rise, started eating all and sundry and the world ends. Just like every other zombie holocaust. However Dead Set's twist on the usual proceedings is that the action centres not on a hospital, shopping mall, or military base but on the reality TV show. So we have a group wannabe telly stars who slowly realise that the world outside has ended...

The major coup here is that rather than having to invent a fictitious show, the makers managed to secure the services of the daddy of reality telly, Big Brother. Seeing the zombie outbreak occur around the very familar sets of Big Brother adds massivley to the credibility of the story. Certainly, given the quality of this production, they could have pulled it off with a made-up show but featuring a very famous real world show gives the story much more impact. Plus we get to see Davina McCall in the thick of cannibal ghoul action, which adds hugely to the fun factor!

Also the show's creator, Charlie Brooker is primarily a TV critic, famed for his amusingly scaborous writing, and so Dead Set features an important but often overlooked element of a classic zombie tale - social satire. So naturally being able to weave his plot around the exisitng cultural framework of Big Brother has sharpened his pen in this respect.

As we are only two episodes right now, obviously it's hard to gauge how good this show is. But on the current evidence, I'd have to say that Dead Set is delivering a solid addition to the zombie genre. It's sharply written, fast paced and nicely directed - easily knocking the average dead flick back into its grave. The acting is pretty great too: Jaime Winston is delivering a fantastatic performance as the heroine, ably supported by the rest of the cast which includes the very great Kevin Eldon. And special mention must be made of Davina McCall, who has a much bigger role than the expected cameo, and has been brilliant.


Not only has she provided a terrific death scene but is currently doing sterling work as a flesh eating ghoul. Depending on the remaining episodes, she very well could be set to join the likes of Bub and the Tar man in the best zombie performance hall of fame. Certainly her eviction night catchphrase "I'm coming to get you" is taking on a whole new meaning.


Ok quibbling time! First up, be warned this show does feature fast zombies. Now I much prefer yer classic shambling dead, but I can live with speedy undead. And in Dead Set they are handled well; generally they do shamble about ... until they spot prey and then they start motoring.

Quibble number two - recently Mark Kermode has been talking about the 'Bayification' of modern direction (see the link to his site for the full rant), and there are elements of this in Dead Set. For those who don't know, Bayification in short can be defined as the absolute inability to keep the goddamn camera still, particularly during action shots, often to the point of making what is happening in the scene utterly incomprehensible. Now there is a little of this in Dead Set and so far I'm inclined to forgive it. Mainly as you can still tell what's going on, and it's being used reasonably sparingly. Also I suspect some quick shaky cutting is a cunning way to show full-on flesh chomping on TV without garnering too many complaints. (Quick aside: in the UK there is a weird double standard regarding horror - horror films must be shown very late at night, whereas the likes of Casualty can stage horrific accidents and liberally chuck gore about before the watershed).

Final quibble - at the start of this I mentioned we'd be looking at whether Dead Set counts as a TV series. Now judging from last night's episode, I'm not sure it was actually written to be shown in five parts, as the episode just seemed to stop rather than build up to a cliffhanger. It's too early to say but I'm guessing it was originally conceived to shown as a two or three parter. Or maybe even as an epic length TV movie. I'm intrigued to discover how it will be presented on the DVD - as they screened the whole thing for the press, plus the lack of credits, I'm betting we'll get the series as a movie. So possible this ISN'T the first zombie series.

However what Dead Set certainly is is the most convincing slice of horror seen on TV in a long time. And it's definitely rotted head and shoulders above most zombie cinema. I'm not ordering the DVD just yet but I'm damn close...

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Merlin - the Mid-Season Report

So we've got the halfway mark, and I thought it was high time for an update on how I feel the show is doing so far...

And the short answer is very well indeed. I've been througly enjoying these Saturday tea-time jaunts to Camelot. The show is delivering just the right mix of magic, adventure and humour to keep this viewer happy, and seems to be confidently stepping over any worries I had.

I've quite acclimatised to the modernist stylings of the dialogue. Of course on principle, I'd prefer a little more of the typical cod-period thee and thouing but I'm finding in Merlin the colloquial approach is working out well. Mainly this is due to the dialogue being sufficently witty and dramatic to carry it off. And I quite like the way that they actually do venture in the verily for soothe realms for the scenes of court formality.

Performances have been top notch and guest roles have been well cast. The regulars are gelling nicely, giving the show a strong ensemble piece feeling. I also like the way different episodes shift the focus; for example it was great to see Richard Wilson's Gaius take centre stage in tonight's episode.

Plot-wise, I'm enjoying the direction the story lines are developing. I'm guessing that like another very well-known series about a boy wizard, the writers are planning on this show to run and run - with the characters aging and presumably reach the point where they can tell the classic Arthurian stories.

On the effects front, I have to say I'm still not a fan of the Great Dragon design - it has failed to grow on me, and still reminds me of Churchill the nodding dog. Other than that though, the cgi has been up scratch, and generally not over used. And I delighted that in "The Mark of Nimueh", the Afanc appeared to be a good old fashioned, physically made creature model.

If I have one niggle though, it's the Great Dragon scenes. Design aside, he is getting a Mystic Meg in his cryptic pronoucements, to point you begin to wonder why they bother consulting him at all. But thankfully, we have had a few episodes where a trip to his cave wasn't obligatory.

On the whole though, I'm finding this is perfect TV fare for winter weekends and I'm looking forward to see where the rest of the series goes. And that's another thing Merlin is doing well - the great 'The adventure continues...' teasers. Can't wait to see what the scary drippy-faced blue demon king thing in next week's episode is all about!

Thursday, 23 October 2008


After more muppetry than I care to mention, it's finally here! The rough beast's hour has come at last - is open! A miscellany of vision, verse and lore.

And believe me it probably is a bit of a rough beast right now too! I'll no doubt be spending a fair chunk of time bug hunting in the next couple of days... but hey it's up in a fledging form :)!

Go check it out now!

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Quick Update

Apologies for the lack of posts this week, as we've been rather busy here at Hypnogoria sorting out the main. The dark gods willing, the site should go live in the next few days!

On the reviews front, expect a bumper crop soonish - I've got a fair few rough drafts floating about waiting to be polished to an acceptable degree of literacy - including the final reviews for the Universal Frankenstein series. Well the official series anyway - I will add a review of 'Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein' when I eventually pick up the DVD. And in the spirit of completism I will review "Van Helsing" - yes I know it's a travesty but as it was intended as a homage to the movies I've been looking at, I thought it deserves a look in.

Right I'm off back to the web muppetry before I start a rant about wc3 validation and the 'embed' tag...

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Happy Like Murderers

Gordon Burn's Happy Like Murderers (Faber & Faber 1998) is a very difficult book. At several points during reading this, the book was put down for several days and it was touch and go whether I'd return to it. But return I did, and eventually finished it. And I can't say I was glad to either - on one hand, it was good to get to the end of an exceedingly tough book but even after you finish it tends to linger in the mind for a good long while.

Anyhow, to the book itself - basically this an account of the lives of Fred and Rose West, the notorious UK serial murder couple. First thing to note, is that it is an account of their lives and not just the crimes they committed. It is closer to biography than most true crime books.
Secondly it it written in a style somewhere between a biography and a novel. This isn't to say that this is a fictionalized account of the proceedings, but it is does use a good deal of literary flourishes that are more commonly found in a novel.

When I first heard about this book, I was unsure of how this style would work. My feeling was that too much narrative and desription might overwhelm the facts of the case and possibly stumble into the tar-pit of unfounded speculation and outright fabrication in creating some scenes. However I can report that Burn has done an excellent job in crafting this work and manages to illustrate the events rather embroider them. Stylistically, Burn uses the repetition and variations of certain key phrases that sketch in atmosphere and psychological themes. Some readers may find these echoes in the text annoying, but I found them to an elegant device which highlight the progression of the West's crimes, illuminate the links between past and present events, and to reiterate recurring impressions and opinions.

Also it must be noted that this style does not in any way dilute the horror of the facts. For all the 'artistic' flourishes, the book never provides a comforting fictional veneer of the events of Cromwell Road. Neither does Burn go down the tabloid route. There isn't reams of sensationally written 'reconstructions' of the murders or pages of details from autopsy reports. The murders themselves are dealt with rather succintly - as there is scant actual detail about them. Fred West only really spoke about the specifics of disposing of the bodies, and the forensic evidence was limited due to the age and condition of the bodies discovered.

So what made this book so hard to get through? Although details of the murders are few, there is a lot known about life at 25 Cromwell Road, in the main from the recollections of three of the West's children. For this book, Burn extensively researched and interviewed family, friends and co-workers and has built up a detailed picture of The West's lives - not just the major events but their day-to-day routines over the years. And it is this emerging picture that is so upsetting to read.

Basically the Wests created within Cromwell Street a pocket universe which revolved around sex and sadism. The murders really are only just one part of a larger nest of horrors. Both Fred and Rose came from families where abuse; physical, sexual and psychological, were rthe norm, and their own household perpetuated this. Burn handles this material with the necessary sensitivity and steers a course away from lurid detail, but reading about how they not only abused their own children, but allowed and encouraged others to do so, year after year is very harrowing.

If you wish to understand the motivations and possible background triggers for the West's murders, this book does paint a very detailed picture. However it cannot be said to be the only book about the West you need to read.

The problem is that the actual investigation, arrest and trial are only very briefly examined in the final chapter. And although Burn has avoided speculation, and rightly so in the main, there are some issues where I felt some commentary was necessary. For example, the question of how many more murders, other than the twelve that went to trial, were committed really needed to be mentioned more fully. Similarly the issue of whether or not Rose was party to the murders also warranted remarking on.

Hence a reader who makes it to the end of this book, may be have to cast about for another account to get the complete picture. Now I'm in this boat, and though I feel I should while the facts from Happy Like Murderers are fresh in the mind, to be honest, right now I really don't want to read another book on the Wests.

So in conclusion, I would recommend this book if you have an interest in the West murders, but with the following reservations - that firstly it's highly upsetting and secondly will not give you a full view of the case.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Ghost of Frankenstein

1942 brought us The Ghost of Frankenstein, the fourth entry in the saga and a turning point for the series as a whole. It is the first film in which Boris Karloff does not play the monster, lumbering duties being taken up by Lon Chaney Jr. But the major change was this - whereas the first three films has been unashamedly 'A' list pictures, Ghost of Frankenstein was the first to be produced for as a 'B' movie, meaning a quicker production on a smaller budget.

Despite the slashed funds, Ghost of Frankenstein still features decent sets and camerawork, and Erle C Kenton's direction is competent though somewhat uninspired compared to to Whale and Lee's efforts. But where the budget begins to bite is in the script.

On the plus side, the bones of the plot are actually quite good, featuring the continuing tale of Ygor's partnership with the monster. It features strong continuity with the previous films, something that the following three films would largely jettison to their detriment. However there are some niggles here. Firstly how did the monster survive immersion in the sulphur pit which Inspector Krough states is hot enough to broil a man to the bone. Secondly why had Ludwig Frankenstein been living in a neighbouring village, when Son of Frankenstein states that the Frankensteins fled to America? And why was they second son not mentioned before? And why does Ludwig have a basement lab full of monster reviving electrical apparatus? Were these Ken Strickfadden gizmos standard issue for medical practioners at the time? One wonders if the village chiropodist has a cellar full of sparking Ken Strickfaden gear too. On the more serious side though, one wonders why on earth the monster seems to agree to having his brain removed. And furthermore why the hell does he want the little girl's brain transplanted into his bonce?

Of course it doesn't often pay to expect high degrees of sense and logic in monster movie. But these plot holes aside, the real weakness of the script is that it has a truly 'B' movie sensibility. Whereas the previous films had character-driven dynamics, Ghost of Frankenstein emphaises the monster's exploits and the ghoulish thrills of mad science, with characters being plot devices to further this rather than creating any dramatic tension.

This is most clearly highlighted in Ygor. Bela Lugosi's performance of the character doesn't slip in quality but he has a good deal less to do. Much of his dialogue serves as exposition rather than character building. And Ygor lacks a Wolf or Krough to match wits against.

Similarly Lionel Atwill's Bomar is much underused. His subplot is actually quite intriguing. Apparently he was originally Ludwig's mentor, until a surgical accident ruined his standing in the medical community and now he finds himself relegated to assisting his former pupil. Naturally he is somewhat bitter and harbours a degree of resentment to Frankenstein - something that Ygor uses to ensure that he will get his brain trnasplanted into the monster's body against Ludwig's wishes. However at the film's climax, the new Ygor/monster discovers his body and senses are failing, as Bomar as blundered again; he's overlooked that fact that there is a tissue incompatibility between Ygor and the monster.

Now on paper this appears a solid backbone to build the story around, and finishes with a neat ironic twist. However in the actual film it falls flat as the script has not developed the characters of Ygor, Bomar or Ludwig enough to give it the necessary dramatic weight. Which is a real pity as from their performance in Son of Frankenstein, Atwill and Lugosi could have really carried this off. The final twist comes across as a last minute deus ex machina to foil the Ygor/monster hybrid rather than being the satisfying conclusion of the character's interweaving stories.

Aside from the script, the film does have one other major weak link - the loss of Boris Karloff. Creighton Chaney, bless him, performs well enough but lacks the pathos Karloff imbued the monster with. Chaney's monster is alot more stiff and robotic than Karloff's, but ironically his performance has the stereotypical movements we associate with the monster today. And in fairness, the script doesn't exactly call for much other than alot of lurching about. But acting styles aside, Chaney just doesn't look right in the Pierce makeup - his monster sadly is more chubby than cadaverous.

Despite being a definite step down from the previous films, Ghost of Frankenstein is still an enjoyable watch. Though you can't help feeling there's was a better film lurking in the material that a more developed script could have delivered. In many ways, it's a bit of an oddity. Despite it's continuity it doesn't quite fit in with the first three films due to the lower brow scripting. But it also doesn't fit with the following sequels as after this continity went out the window, and this was to be the last time the monster appeared on his own. The later three films were to be 'monster rallies' where Frankenstein's creature would have to share the screen with the Wolfman and the Count...

Friday, 26 September 2008


So this year, in place of Robin Hood the BBC are offering us a new series Merlin. Now while I applaud Auntie Beeb for going the whole hog and making further adventure series for what's now being refered to as the Doctor Who slot, I never really got into their Robin Hood series.

Overall I found the modernist dialogue jarring and it's grip on its historical setting a bit shaky. I felt that it was trying so hard to be hip and relevant, it was undermining the whole flavour of the Robin Hood mythos. Though in fairness, I should point out that I'd recent rewatched all the 1980's Robin of Sherwood - a series which to my mind is the pinnacle of Hood on screen. So with that series fresh in the memory, naturally the new BBC series was always going to seem a very poor cousin in comparison.

So when I sat down last Saturday to check out Merlin, my main concern wsa that it would fall into the same modernist pitfalls as its predecessor in this slot. However although it shares much of the same hip polish of Robin Hood, I felt it worked a good deal better. Perhap this is due to the fact that unlike the tales of Robin Hood, the Arthurian mythos is not so rooted actual history and consequently I'm apt to be alot more forgiving of anachronisms.

Also another key difference is that Merlin is telling new stories set in the Arthurian universe; in setting up a saga about Merlin's early years and breaking new story telling ground, this series is steering clear of unfavourable comparisons. For example, if the show was going to be a retelling of the classic Camlot legends, then inevitably we'd be measuring it up against John Boorman's Excalibur.

The first episode of the series introduces us to a fresh perspective of the mythos, setting out to tell the untold tales of Merlin's youth. It's Camelot via Smallville if you will. And it's an interesting approach, opening the door to a good rich vein of potential plots playing with the viewers' knowledge of what the characters eventually will grow up to be. The series opener chucks out two great curve balls - firstly that Arthur and Merlin don't actually like each other, and secondly the romantic frisson between Merlin and Guinevere.

In addition to this, we are also given a similar twist on the setting. Merlin is set during the reign of Uther Pendragon who has brought peace to the land after very dark troubled times. And part of maintaining that peace, is that the practice of magic has been outlawed. All in all, these elements open the way for a very interesting spin on Arthurian mythology and great scope for the series in terms of story arcs and character development.

The cast is also very strong - a rea lboon if they plan on taking the character's down the type of epic emotional arcs that Smallville and Buffy The Vampire Slayer did. Tony Head and Richard Wilson are as every bit as good as you'd imagine them to be, and Bradley James and Angel Coulby play great versions of the young Arthur and Guinvere. James in particular hits the right balance of arrogance and nobility for the teenage king-to-be. However the real stand out is Colin Morgan's Merlin who is an instantly likeable character - Morgan's performance is naturalistic and with subtle depths and proves he can more than carry this series.

Another piece of great casting is John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon. However here we hit the one down point - I really didn't like the CGI dragon. It wasn't that it was badly animated, it was more that I didn't like the creature design. To me the dragon's head appeared slightly too large for its body at some points, reminding me of one of the nodding dogs that haunt the back window ledges of cars.

However this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent opening episode. The series shows great promise and potential. Whether it will live up to this remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see what elements of the existing stories they work into the mix. However for now, I'll round off by saying that I've looking forward all week to see what tomorrow's episode brings ... A good result for any series opener.


Just added 4 more designs to the store. This quartet of woodcuts are from the long lost John Dee translation of the Necronomicion, and scholars believe they were created by an ancestor of the notorious Boston artist Richard Upton Pickman...


by H. P. Lovecraft
Out of what crypt they crawl, I cannot tell,
But every night I see the rubbery things,
Black, horned, and slender, with membraneous wings,
And tails that bear the bifid barb of hell.
They come in legions on the north wind's swell,
With obscene clutch that titillates and stings,
Snatching me off on monstrous voyagings
To grey worlds hidden deep in nightmare's well.

Over the jagged peaks of Thok they sweep,
Heedless of all the cries I try to make,
And down the nether pits to that foul lake
Where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep.
But oh! If only they would make some sound,
Or wear a face where faces should be found!


The Offering


Ghoul Feeding


The Truth About Mermaids


Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Holmes vs Frankenstein?

After a sucessful revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in a double bill, Universal decided to it was high time to revive the monster once again. However the sequel was to be done without many of the series' stalwarts, with only Karloff returning . But could new boy Rowland V. Lee match the heights of James Whale's direction?

The first thing to note about his production is that the script was being constantly rewritten during shooting. However to Lee's credit, the finished film shows little of this behind the scenes turmoil. Certainly the the movie wanders a little in the middle section, but in fairness this is nitpicking. After all, a tendency to lose a little pace around the halfway mark is a common affliction in most movies, and when watching Son of Frankenstein you wouldn't guess that new pages of script were often turning up on set on a daily basis! And that's an impressive feat for any director. Alot of films which suffer this end up as Alan Smithee productions.

However Lee's accomplishments don't just end with making a coherent movie from a hydra-headed script. Firstly there's the fantastic casting and the performances he got from them. Bela Lugosi excels as Igor, the villainous graverobber. Lugosi often gets accused of being a terrible ham, but his portrayal of Ygor shows great depth and subtlety, and quite possibly tops his genre-defining performance of the Count. Indeed it's worth noting that due to this film, Ygor will always be the name associated with a mad doctor's deformed assistant in the popular imagination. Therefore, at the very least, Lugosi's Ygor has proved to be an iconic performance equal to his Dracula.

Equally impressive is Ygor's nemesis, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krough. Despite having an arm ripped of by the monster in his youth, Krough is a more complex character than the usual monster-chasing hero. He tries to keep the peace between the new Baron Frankenstein and the anxious populace, rather than lead a torch and pitchfork wielding mob. While Ygor is the sinister schemer, manipulating both Frankenstein and the monster, Krough is very much his reflection, icarrying out counterpoint string pulling. He attempts to keep the villagers at peace, investigates the monster's murders and tries to discover the extent of Frankenstein's involvement. The interplay between Atwill and Rathbone is also great. Krough rightly suspects that Wolf is following in his father's footsteps but still tries to gain his confidence.

Atwill imbues Krough with a calculating intelligence and deep integrity and honour. And he achieves this with his character having one of the most bizarre character traits in movie history. Krough's missing arm has been replaced by a wooden one, which he manipulates to give himself the use of two arms. Now this could have easily been used to comedic effect (as Mel Brooks did in 'Young Frankenstein'), but Atwill and Lee carefully ensure that never happens. Whenever Krough is moving his replacement arm, it underlines not just the threat of the monster but the strength and virtues of Krough. Here is a man who by rights should be first in line to lead the mob against Wolf Frankenstein as soon as he alits from the train, yet he does the opposite and welcomes the new Frankensteins and tries to avert the villagers' hostility. Moreover the way he uses his arm suggests a man who in the face of adversity as chosen to calmly carry on regardless; his affliction may have precluded him from fulfilling his ambition to become a solider but he will be the best, most committed police inspector possible.

The last newcomer to look at is Basil Rathbone. Most famous for his performances as Sherlock Holmes (the first two films in the long running series would appear in the same year as Son of Frankenstein), he proves he can create a Frankenstein distinct from Colin Clive yet just as memorable. As Wolf Frankenstein, he portrays a man who wishes to escape his father's monster-making shadow but ultimately catches his father's scientific fervour when he discovers the survival of the monster. Indeed as the film progresses, he gradually begins to develop nervous tics that cleverly echo Clive's performance. He convincingly depicts a man who is not only trapped between the pull of Ygor and Krough, but also between his own family life and his father's legacy. All in all, Rathbone's Wolf Frankenstein proves to be a more complex and believeably character than Clive's Henry.

Needless to say, Karloff is still excellent as the monster. After the events of the last film, the monster is once more mute and seems a little less intelligent now - presumably either due to damaged suffered or the 'sickness' he is suffering from when Ygor first reveals him. Although the monster is a good deal more evil under the bidding of Ygor, there is still pathos and depth in Karloff's performance. The scene where the revived monster confronts Wolf is particularly memorable.

In addition to these three great turns, Lee has other aces up his sleeve. This film boasts beautiful cinematography and fantastic sets. Now the Frankenstein home has become an Expressionist labyrinth of jutting angles and twisted architecture, with Lee's camera work and light making the most of harsh lines and deep shadows. The film has great visual flair, creating a rich and atmospheric world for the drama to unfold in. Jeremy Dyson in Bright Darkness notes that many subsequent directors have borrowed shots from this film - most strikingly Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; as Dyson points out Welles borrows Lee's opening sequence practically shot for shot.

Son of Frankenstein is a fine film. It not only delivers the expected chills but also continues to intelligently explore wider themes. Lee wisely focuses the action through the character's relationships rather mere monster mayhem, and in doing so creates genuine drama and tension. It is a worthy sucessor to the Whale films and in my view comfortably equals them, forming a very solid trilogy of Frankenstein movies. It's actually my favourite of the Universal sequels - though it's a very close call between Son of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.

However this was to be the last outing for Karloff as the monster, and the following films of the series would not maintain the high standards of the first three...

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Proudly Presenting...

...The art of HYPNOGORIA. Posted below is a series featuring the icons from the silent horror era. We hope you like 'em!


And you can buy stuff with them printed on! We've just opened the UK store, and fret not, as a US/world store is coming very soon.
The link for the store is

Also check out the new 'Benighted Places' link list, which features among other things some of my favourite podcasts which help while away the hours spent sweating in Photoshop and Dreamweaver.





The Bells


"And the Red Death held illimitable dominon over all"


Big Ben At Midnight


Sunday, 21 September 2008

Here Comes The Bride!

As far back as 1933 Universal were looking to develop a sequel to Frankenstein. Several scripts were produced over the next 2 years which ranged from a scifi-style tale of Frankenstein developing a death ray to a bizarre saga with Henry and Elizabeth running away to join the circus and posing as puppeteers. However none of these found favor with the studio heads or James Whale who they were keen to get back for directing duties.

However despite the lack of a decent treatment for the proposed film, then titled 'The Return of Frankenstein', Universal managed to secure Whale's services. His first action was to junk all the previously developed concepts and comission John L. Balderston to dream up a completely new plot...

Bearing in mind our conclusions on the original, it is somewhat ironic that the fresh finished script created by Balderston and William Hurlburt (and no doubt polished by Whale himself) actually draws more heavily from Shelley's original work. We now get a monster who speaks (though admittedly not as verbose as in the book); scenes detailing his education and of course the whole plot of the monster blackmailing Frankenstein into creating a mate for him. It even flags up it's credentials with a nifty prologue featuring Lord Bryon and Shelley asking Mary about the monster's fate. Naturally these elements are more reworked than accurately recreated but we still have a film that is nearer to the novel than the original.

However the script's great strength is that it is a smooth continuation of the first film. This is no lazy rehash of the first outing, it picks up directly from the close of Frankenstein and then carries on with logical progressing both the story and it's themes. Actually this is so deftly done, one who think that a second film had been planned alongside the original. Furthermore with adding more of Shelley's elements it feels like the second half novel filtered onto the screen. And if you consider the movies as two halves of one film, the result would be arguably the closest adaption of the novel ever filmed.

Of course there are a few niggles with sitting down and watching both films back to back. Firstly Elizabeth is recast. Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clark - but in all fairness she gives a far better performance. Secondly the Frankenstein home is now gloomy and gothic than pleasantly summery as in the first film.

Finally though, the third niggle is the extra added humour. Don't panic, Bride of Frankenstein doesn't go all out into out and out horror comedy territory (it would be a good few more years before this happens at the hands of Abbott & Costello). In the main it's a case of the black humour present in the 1931 film has been polished and sharpened. Ernest Thesiger's arch Doctor Pretorius has a great many witty lines but none which undercut his villainy or the atmosphere of horror.

However, in all fairness there are two scenes where the comedy arguably oversteps this mark. One is the scene where Pretorius unveils his creations, who turn out to be little hommunculi in belljars which have been dressed in satirical costumes. But what tips this scene is not so much the antics of the King who escapes from his jar, but the high pitched squeaking voices of Pretorius' creations - it's hard for the modern viewer to watch this without being reminded of Alvin & the chipmonks/the Smurfs/Pinky & Perky/insert suitable helium-voiced pop culture reference.

Similiarly it's hard not to keep a straight face when the monster starts drinking and puffing on cigars with the blind hermit. When I rewatched this, all Karloff's shouts of 'Smoke!" and "Drink good!" made me wonder if this performance was an inspiration for Father Jack in Father Ted.
And there's further comedy in that due to the lighting the cigar the monster happily smokes looks very like a monstrous reefer! (Presumably this is unintentional, but with Whale's flamboyant private life one never knows).

However neither of these broadly humorous vignettes harm either the atmosphere or the film overall in my opinion. Pretorius' hommunculi ultimately underline the madness and perversity of his character, and the monster enjoying the hospitality of the blind hermit, though amusing are at the same time quite touching. They also form a key point in the plot in that the subsequent shattering of this idyll propells the monster into further villainy.

Niggles aside and whether you watch it as a sequel or a 'Part 2', this film is a classic in every sense equal to it's predecessor. Clive and Karloff turn in accomplished performances, Dwight Frye returns as an unscrupulous graverobber from the Burke & Hare school, and Ernest Thesiger excels as the corrupting Pretorius. Whale's actually manages to out-direct himself, creating a film filled with iconic shots and resonant images. He also manages to subvert the audiences' expectations at every turn - the crowning example of this being the actual Bride herself.

After her animation in a scene that tops the original in both tension and Ken Strickfaden-created sparking apparatus, the reveal of the monster's mate was a surprise in itself. Rather slowly peeling away the bandages, Whale opts for a dissolve to the Bride dressed in suitably nuptial robes and after some hair dressing. Instead of a hulking female Karloff clone, we have a rather glamourous if not attractive girl.

Now when I first saw the Bride in a still reproduced in Alan Frank's fabled Horror Movies back in my much younger days, I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that Jack Pierce hadn't delivered a squared headed, scar festooned harpy. But it was a very different matter when I got to see the movie. The first impression still jars the expectations, but then she moves. Firstly Elsa Lanchester gives the Bride a sinister doll-like body language, moving in almost clockwork actions which given the character a truly uncanny nature. But the real kicker is when she turns and we see the intersecting stitching where they attached her head. Whereas Karloff's sutures had a patchwork feel, the Bride's scars have horrible fresh out of car wreck surgery feel to them.

Pierce apparently spent a great deal of time on creating the stitching, much to Elsa Lanchester's displeasure. However the time and care did really pay off; the Bride's perfect porcelain complexion is truly corrupted by the bristling threads. The design in itself is inspired - the stitching is all the more horrid for the way the two lines form a 'V' shape, hinting at a very messy assembly job and leaving the audience wondering how well Henry and Pretorius have put her together - that gown she's wearing probably has long sleeves and hemline for a very good reasons...

Bride of Frankenstein is often claimed to be that rarest of beasts - a sequel that actually improves upon the original. Whether you concur with this, I suspect will largely come to down to how you react to the touchs of humour, black or otherwise. Certainly it at least equals the first film and deserves it's status as a classic in it's own right.

Bride of Frankenstein definitely can be held up as the perfect example of how to contruct as a sequel. Of course this begs the question, would Universal follow it's lead when they came to Son of Frankenstein?

Saturday, 20 September 2008

It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!

Yes it's been a while but we're back! Back I tell you! And armed to the teeth with thoughts on the Universal Frankenstein saga! Multiple posts imminent!

But enough of the Colin Clive ranting ... let us consider the first entry in the cycle - James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). What can one say about this movie? It's not just a horror classic but it's also a genuine giant in the annals of cinema greats. Whale's direction is accomplished, the lighting and sets truly evocative, Jack Pierce's astonishing conception of the creature, and a trio of stellar performances from Karloff, Clive, and Frye.

It's a historic film and still packs a punch today. So taking a glowing review as read, let's move on the more intriguing matter of the film's influence. Something both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula have in common is that neither has been terribly faithfully adapted for the screen. However the reason for this comes from differing causes.

In Dracula adaptions, subplots are lost and characters enjoy a wide variety of role swaps and name changes but the essence of the novel is there. And though the Count usually differs from his appearance in the novel, particularly his rejuvenation throughout the tale, a screen Dracula can be relied upon to deliver whole lines from the book and and behave in the much the same manner as his literary antecedent.

However Frankenstein adaptions are a markedly different kettle of corpses. Very little of the novel remains bar the very bones of the plot. It's often quite a surprise for the reader to find how wildly different the book is. The major shock is the positively garrulous monster who is given to philosophical debating and could no doubt hold his own on University Challege. Other surprises include the vagueness of the creation, the monster learning English from Paradise Lost, and the fact that the whole business of the bride wasn't something dreamed up by sequel-hungry movie men.

What becomes very apparent is that screen Frankensteins are not really adaptions of this book - rather they are remakes of Universal's 1931 film. Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein took it's lead from the Universal film and but for threats of legal action would have featured a monster which looked like Jack Pierce's vision. Frankenstein - The True Story does borrow more elements from the book than most but largely does so within a Whale template. And 1992's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (as mendaciously titled as Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula) was more Cuddly Ken's Remix Of Jimmy Whale's Frankenstein Flicks.

Nearly all the elements we associate with the Frankenstein story - lightning, brain transplants, hunchback assistant, mute lumbering monster, scars, bolts through neck - originate from Whale's movie rather Shelley's text. (The only major exception is the monster's trademark arms outstretched lurching - this doesn't begin until 1942's Ghost of Frankenstein which we'll get to later).

That's how iconic this film really is - it has supplanted the book as the 'real' version of the tale in pop culture. A rare feat indeed. And that's somehow fitting too - as people are still wont to think that 'Frankenstein' is the name of the monster, this is some what mirrored by the fact that when we think of the mad doctor and his creature, we're thinking of the version made by Whale not Shelley.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

She Gives You That Weird Feeling!

Yes, it's Universal chiller time again folks! And now we look at 1936's Dracula's Daughter. The idea of a sequel had been kicking around since 1933 and various treatments had been developed. At one stage the great James Whale was attached to the project and for quite a while Lugosi was slated to reurn as the Count. Lugosi got as far as appearing in publicity stills for the movie and was even paid for the role. However neither made to the final project, leaving us to wonder at what could have been...

But enough preamble and on to the movie that was actually made. Dracula's Daughter is more of a full-blooded sequel than the later Son of Dracula, Edward Van Sloan returns in the role and the last reel of the movie see a return to Dracula's Transylvanian castle, complete with it's famous cobweb wreathed stairs.

The action begining minutes after the close of the first film, with Van Helsing being arrested for the murder of the Count. And pleasingly we get something lacking in the first film - a shot of the staked vampire. After his arrest, the good doctor enlists a former student Dr Garth to aid his defence. And shortly after this, Dr Garth encounters Countess Marya Zaleska, who turns out to be ... well I'm sure you can guess.

Although strongly rooted in the original movie's mythos, Dracula's Daughter is closer to the moody chills of a Val Lewton picture than the gothic thrills of the other Universal horrors. (Indeed art director Albert S. D'Agostini when on to work on Lewton's series of RKO films). It focuses on the psychological rather than the supernatural, creating a very different kind of vampire movie. It presents the vampire in a sympathetic light; the Countess seeks to free herself from the curse of vampirism, firstly by burning her father's body and when this fails by turning to psychiatric treatment from Dr Garth.

Gloria Holden puts in a great performance as a tortured soul, torn between trying to honour her heritage but wishing for freedom from vampirism. On one hand there is the promise of salvation with Dr Garth, and on the other, the temptations of the dark side embodied by her servant Sandor (played with sinister aplomb by Irving Pichel).

The film is also notable for the possible first appearance of sapphic vampirism - the love that dares not spell its name. In a scene where the Countess surrenders to her needs, she preys upon a young girl Sandor has lured to her home. Watching this today, there definitely seems to lesbian overtones, however whether this is intentional is debatable. Apart from the problems this would cause for the film in the time it was made, in the context of the film it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. Her previous victim is male, and though later in the film she kidnaps Dr Garth's amour, here her intentions are merely to use the girl as bait to snare the dashing doctor who she sees as a potential partner to share eternity with. However implied lesbianism aside, the scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.

Overall Dracula's Daughter is a classy little film. Although it has been seen as one of the weaker Universal horrors, it's subtle chills make for rewarding viewing. If you want more typical supernatural vampire antics, procede directly to Son of Dracula. But if you are a fan of the RKO Lewton pictures, which this film can be considered an precursor to, Dracula's Daughter delivers the same kind of artfully shot and character based horror.

One final though to round off this look at Dracula's time at Universal. It's interesting to note that the first trio of Universal Dracula movies all feature a good deal of romance. Lugosi's Dracula is a seductress of 'strange passion', Countess Zaleska is looking for a soulmate and Count Alucard is the foreign interloper in a young couple's relationship. Possibly this is due to the nascent horror movie having less well defined conventions or maybe the studios were seeking to broaden the appeal of the films (which would also explain the inclusion of comedy orderlies and policemen ). Whatever the origin, this theme distinguishes them from the pack of following vampire films, giving them a flavour of their own.

And when will I be looking at the Count's next Universal outing? Not for a while yet. First I intend on revisiting the Frankenstein films and in due course we'll reach the all-star monster rally House of Frankenstein where Dracula hooks up with not only Larry Talbot and Frankenstein's Monster but a mad scientist and his obligatory hunchback assistant...

Another Kind Of Monster

The other night Roadhawk rocked over to my place armed with booze and Some Kind of Monster. The former was Southern Comfort and Schnapps, and the latter was a DVD of the 2004 Metallica documentary, recently snapped up for a song from Mr Morrison's cavernous bargain bins.

Now we'd both heard about this flick - and what we'd heard was this "it's kinda like Spinal Tap come to life". And to be fair, that's what we got. But like Marty DeBergi, we got alot more. A whole lot more.

Although there are some very funny scenes in the film, on the whole these are just a side order to the main course. What the movie actually delivers is a 'warts and all' picture into the life and times of one of the world's biggest rock bands. Covering the difficult circumstances surrounding the recording of the 'St Anger' LP, Some Kind of Monster unflinchingly charts the arguments and tensions of a band close to collapse. As Roadhawk observed afterwards, although some of this could be viewed as comedy in the main the situations are actually too serious to be really funny. For example some of the bickering taken in insolation would play like Tap, in the context of the film you see them as genuine arguments between real human beings.

Now that isn't to say that there isn't humour in the film. Lars Ulrich is a very funny man, a veritable king of dead pan delivery, and new bassist Ron Trujillio does an uncanny impersonation of Ozzy Osbourne. And when James Hetfield returns from rehab sporting a sensible beard and glasses, he did remind me of Red Dwarf's Rimmer in the episode 'Polymorph' after he's had all the anger sucked out of him.

But Metallica don't come across as buffoons in the St Hubbins/Tufnel/Smalls mold. And inspite of all the serious interpersonal chaos, they don't come off as pompous, self indulgent bloated rockstars either. Something of an albatross around the band's neck is the infamous Napster controversy, which made alot of music fans see them as the above. However Some Kind of Monster addresses this very frankly, and without being an exercise in white washing, if you watch this film you will understand how and why this little storm kicked off and, you will even understand the band's reasons for kicking it all off.

It definitely isn't a real life Spinal Tap; if there is a movie comparison to be made then Some Kind of Monster is the Lord of the Rings of rockumentaries. The DVD extras are very much Rings style in length and depth. The deleted scenes alone add almost a whole second movie.

Whether you are a Metallica fan or not, this is a fascinating insight into the workings of a rock band. And if like me, you aren't a big fan of the band, after watching this revealing film there's a good chance you will be. I'm off now to listen to 'Master of Puppets'...

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Son of Dracula

Yes, I 've been at that Monster Legacy boxed set again ... Now technically, I should have watched Dracula's Daughter next, being chronologically the next film in the Universal cycle but I skipped ahead as I'd not seen Son of Dracula since a BBC 2 late night double bill. (See post "Through a Glass Darkly" for more details). Also I thought it a more fitting follow-up to Spanish Dracula as they both have George Robinson on camera duties.

This movie finds a Count Dracula coming over to persent day America to ply his trade. Note that's 'a' Count Dracula - the script claims he is "probably a descendant" of the original and never claims him to be the son of Lugosi (unlike Marya in Dracula's Daughter who is definitely Bela's little girl). This doesn't harm the plot of the film any, in fact it gives the character a mysterious background more pleasing than any hamfisted exposition of the Dracula family tree.

The other thing to note is that he's travelling under the name of "Count Alucard" - which is the first time the Count uses the old reverse-your-name routine. Of course this ruse has been done to death now, but this is the original outing and in fairness, the film doesn't attempt to build any mystery around this. In the opening scene, we see the family crest on the Count's luggage and and a character traces the name backwards.

So down to the movie itself. Overall it's a far better film than it's misleading title suggests. Curt Siodmak crafts an intelligent script that subverts the viewer's expectations. If you've seen any other "Son of" films from this era, you'd be well within your rights to assume that the plot will merely rehash the parent movie. Yes, it's true the Count's aims are the usual come to a fresh young country to hunt a la Stoker, but Siodmak doesn't make this the wellspring of the action. I'll not go into spoiler territory here, as if you've not seen it I'd like to preserve the suprise of the plot twists. I think they warrant the secrecy as the story actually offers an original new direction for a vampire movie.

Visually the movie makes good use of it's Deep South setting. The spooky swamp sets look fantastic and the interior shots are beautifully shot and lit with a deft use of light and shadows.
There's a much talked of scene where the Count's coffin surfaces from the bayou which he then pilots across the murky waters.

The movie also doesn't stint on the special effects. The Count shifts into bat form on numerous occasion with a nifty use of subtle animation. On the whole there's a wealth of good bat work here. Sure they flap in a fashion that screams 'hey I'm mechanical and on wires" to a modern CGI-bloated audience but they are very well realised effects for its day. Like alot of old-time FX creature, these bats have a ton more charm and character than more realistic swarms flittermice that turn up at the drop of hat in today's blockbusters.

Even better though, and still looking impressive today, are sequences with the film's vampires transforming into mist. These effects looks simple gorgeous and genuinely eerie. And you do wonder "How the hell did they do that?" - smoky, drifting tendrils of fog not being the easiest things to matte on top of another scene. And certainly not on to the atmospheric sets lit with an interplay of light and dark.

The cast all perform well, though my favorite was J. Edward Bromberg's Professor Lazlo - this movie's resident vampire expert - played with a confident twinkle in his eye. Interestingly he sports the same type of round spectacles favored by both previous Van Helsings - is this traditional vampire hunter's dress? The good guy's equivalent of an opera cape and evening dress?

Now Creighton Chaney gets alot of stick for his portrayl of Dracula in this movie. I don't think he's "excruciatingly miscast" as David J. Skal puts it, but I do understand the criticisms of his performance. Indeed when I orginally saw this movie, I was unimpressed. But watching it again, I quite warmed to him in the role. In all fairness, he looks great - he cuts an imposingly tall figure and moves with the expected poise without lapsing into overexaggerated hissing and miming. However I think the problem many viewers over the years have had with him in the role is his voice - he doesn't have the sardonic charm of a Lee or the baroque speech patterns of a Lugosi. Also Chaney is so associated with Larry Talbot it's easy to start reading a pathos in his delivery that isn't really there. In terms of the movie though, it's important to remember he's only a Dracula not the Dracula, and if you think of the character in this light, I think he works well.
In the final scenes, where the Count is shown at his most monstrous, Chaney really knocks it out of the park.

So in conclusion then, this is a great little film. Far better than it's title would have you believe, and containing some very memorable scenes. Certainly I think it's had somewhat of a short shrift over the years but that's something that hopefully this rambling review may help to rectify.

Next stop on this tour of Universal horrors will be Dracula's Daughter. But if you're lucky I may get my act together and look at a few other things before continuing with the old school chillers. Or maybe not. Who knows? Not me...

Friday, 29 August 2008

Dracula - the Spanish Version

Back in the days when sound was a new thing in cinema, it was common for studios to shoot foreign language versions of movie while the main feature was being filming. employing the same costumes and sets.

Now I first heard about the Spanish version of Dracula a few years ago, and the buzz was that this was a superior film it's famous sibling. Has I was originally rather underwhelmed by the Lugosi version, I was intrigued to see this feature albeit with the thought in mind that it wouldn't take that much to improve on the original.

However as documented belowed, I've recently reassessed that film in the light of a new Phillip Glass soundtrack, and accordingly the bar was raised for the Spanish language version.

The first thing to note about this production is the longer running time. Undoubtedly this allows the movie to spin a more substanial story. Secondly director George Melford wields his camera with a great deal more panache than Tod Browning, and seeks to make the scenes as dynamic as possible.

It's has been claimed that the Spanish crew would watch the rushes of the Lugosi production before filming and sought to try and top whatever Browning had done. And this become very apparent right out of the gate, with the first scene of the coach bringing Renfield to the Borgo Pass. Melford has the coach rattling and bumping down the road a good deal more violently than in the Browning version.

Similarly in the scene where Van Helsing confronts Dracula with his lacl of reflection in the mirrored cigarette box, Melford has the vampire actually lash out with his cane smashing the box to matchwood.

However there is more to the direction than merely increasing the dynamics of the action. Melford shows real flair and imagination is his shooting. In his version of the meeting of Renfield and Dracula on the decayed castle staircase, he pans the camera around the set simulating Renfield's POV finishing with a whirl to reveal the vampire, who has seemingly materialised out of nowhere.

Also worth noting here, is his approach to Dracula emerging from his coffins. In the Browning version, we see the lid lifting a crack and a hand spidering out. Melford repeats this but then adds to the tableaux. He shows us the coffin lid springing open, releasing clouds of fog, out of which Dracula gradually appears.

Such flourishes abound. Renfield's demise is a great deal more violent and dramatic. And we actually get to see Mina - renamed Eva in this production, actually attempt to bite Harker.

So on the whole, we do get a much livelier film. Though in fairness, in some shots Browning's still the daddy - Melford doesn't quite manage to top the scenes aboard the storm-lashed ship and doesn't manage to replicate Browning's fantasically creepy shot of a bloated beetle emerging from what appears to be a miniature coffin.

However, regardless of the directing style, the original version has three good aces up it's sleeve. And they are the performances of Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Fry and, of course, the legendary Bela Lugosi. Though I feel it's seem a trifle unfair to tally performances between the productions rather than judge them on their own merits, inevitably comparisions spring to mind while watching.

So of the big three, first on the block is Van Helsing. Eduardo Arozamena rocks the same outfit complete with the mad scientist glasses as Van Sloan and provides an equally commanding presence. However his Van Helsing is a good deal warmer and paternal, and these gentle touches give the character a good deal more depth. Arozamena's doctor feels more like a real physician rather than a vampire expert to be wheeled on. And this human touch pays off nicely in the final scene, with Van Helsing leaving to to honour his promise to Renfield, allowing the film to close on a note that brings home the human cost of the story.

Secondly we have Pablo Álvarez Rubio as Renfield. Dwight Fry's performance is justly revered, and Rubio gamely tries to match him. Again though, his Renfield is more human - his performance nuances a more realistic insanity than Fry's villianous mania. Now for me, although he makes an impassioned Renfield, convincingly demented by being in Dracula's thrall, I think Fry still has it. Largely, I think as Fry's performance contains a good deal more menace and his madness is by turns both sympathetic and sinister.

Now before we come to the crux, I'd like to look at other notable cast members. Barry Norton's Juan Harker has as little to do as David Manner's Jonathan, but he makes a greater impression. More impressive is Lupita Tovar. In her portrayl as Eva, she absolutely trouces Helen Chandler's Mina. The scene where we see her attack Juan is stunning, but not because we actually see teeth heading neckwards. Tovar is absolutely magnetic as she shows the change from ordinary girl to vampiress and then collapsing into confusion and remorse in the aftermath.
She brings real emotion tothe role. And her Eva possesses a good deal more sensuality while under Dracula's thrall - and that just isn't down to the *ahem* impressive decolletage on show (they ditched Helen Chandler's prim cover-all costumes).

Also worthy of a mention is Manuel Arbo as Martin the orderly. As in the original, his character is the comic relief but his performance is a good deal less broad and so jars less with the overall mood of the film. Naturally, he isn't hamstrung as Charles K Gerrad is with an appalling British accent, which make Dick Van Dyke's Bert in 'Mary Poppins' sound like positively authentic. Comedy accents aside though, his Martin is a more rounded character.

Right, down to the meat of the matter - Carlos Villarías vs Bela Lugosi. Now Lugosi's Dracula is an icon of cinema, set the template for vampires in popular culture and is the yardstick by which all other bloodsuckers are measured. How can Villarías compete with all of that?
Well, even disregarding his legacy, Lugosi's performance is still top-flight stuff. According to Lupita Tovar's introduction on the Legacy DVD, it's iconic status was recognised during filming and Villarías was instructed to emulate Lugosi at every turn. However despite this he turns in an interpretation of Dracula that is more than a mere facsimile.

With the longer running time and possibly because of Lugosi's difficulties with English, Villarías' Dracula get more lines, and so his Dracula has a more oratory flavor. However the real difference is that his Count is a good deal more suave and charming. With the charm he brings to the role, plus his more youthful appearance, he is a more plausible seducer than Lugosi. This is a debonair romantic Dracula the liek of which we would not see again until Frank Langella. You can more readily believe that Lucy and Eva/Mina would be drawn to his Count; Lugosi, although positively extruding old world call and charm, seems a little unlikely to inspire a crush in the hearts of young debutantes.

However, his charm does come at the expense of menace. Although I feel this isn't due to any failing in his performance; indeed when in full vampire mode, he turns in a rather creepy brooding performance. Rather I think it's a somewhat inevitable dynamic - that the more romantic a Dracula is, the more human the character becomes and this lessens his strength as a creature of the night. Langella also falls prey to this and Gary Oldman's Count loses much of his darkness when the audience realises that most of his wickedness is born of lovesick bitterness rather than satanic evil.

But back to Villarías. His Dracula appears a more hungry, lusty vampire. Although he cannot match Lugosi's other worldly magnetism, his Count filled with passion when both ingratiating himself into polite society and when stalking the foggy night. In many ways the balance of charm and menace he strikes fits very well with the film's original tag line -"The strangest love story of all".

So to conclude, this version of Dracula is well worth seeking out. It's an impressive production with strong casting and exciting direction. There are a few rough edges, but after all this was shot at speed during the night after the main production had stopped for the day. Indeed the confident and elan of this picture are all the more remarkable considering this.

The Browning version is so iconic in many respects, I'm not sure the Spanish version will ever displace it even though it is in many respects superior. David Skal in his book V is for Vampire hails it as a must see - an opinion with which I heartily concur.

In fact, my only reservation about this movie, is the music. I just wish Universal had provided the option to watch it with the Phillip Glass score...